Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

As promised, the first of three blogs this week on book recommendations. Even though my children are now teenagers, they still get a book or two in their stocking – I live in hope! In my experience younger kids are easy – you can just buy them a story or picture in some subject they’re vaguely interested in and they will love it. Older children are not so easy, especially if you don’t know them that well. Having said that, I don’t always get it right for the kids that live with me either! Oh well, it’s ALWAYS worth giving a book, in my view, and you never know, you might even spark a new interest – kids are notorious for sticking with what they know.

So, if you are looking for some ideas for the young people in your life, here are some fab non-fiction titles that I have spotted.

Primary School

xmas 18 1

 

There Are Fish Everywhere – Britte Teckentrup and Katie Haworth

Stunning illustrations, informative, weird and wonderful facts about sea creatures. Beautiful.

 

 

 

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Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present  – Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Short biographies of towering figures in Black history, some you will have heard of and some less well-known, but equally important. Boldly illustrated.

 

 

xmas 18 3

 

The Human Body: A Pop up guide to anatomy – Richard Walker and Rachel Caldwell

Anatomical books make very popular gifts and the pop-ups in this one are wonderful. Has the added twist of presenting it from the perspective of a 19th century medical student, so something for those with an interest in history too.

 

Late primary/early secondary

xmas 18 4

 

Code Like a Girl: Rad Tech Projects and Practical Tips  – Miriam Peskowitz

I’m all for a book that busts a gender stereotype – boys can like fashion, girls can like coding.

 

 

 

xmas 18 6

 

Unlock Your Imagination: 250 boredom busters – published by Dorling Kindersley

When you try to peel your children off their devices, how often do you hear them cry “But, I’m bored!”? There is an argument that our kids should be more bored, as this can stimulate creativity. This book may help and many of the activities are short and straightforward, so could be done whilst travelling. Suitable for younger kids too, so good if you have children of different ages to please.

xmas 18 5

 

An Anthology of Intriguing Animals – Ben Hoare

This is a beautiful book, taking a close-up look at 100 animals and their special talents and characteristics. Lovely short chapters with some off the wall facts, and a mix of stunning photographs and illustrations.

 

 

Teens

Many teenagers are happy with adult books, but we all know that they can also have some very unique and specific needs and interests. Thankfully, the book market in recent years has evolved to cater to this very special group, when interest in books can really fall off a cliff.

xmas 18 7

 

Zen Teen: 40 ways to stay calm when life gets stressful – Tanya Carroll Richardson

This book will be published on 6 December and I’ve already got one on pre-order! Many teens are interested in mindfulness now as a way of managing the pressures in their life, and this can only be a good thing. This title looks as if it will be a worth addition to any teenager’s library.

 

xmas 18 8Cooking Up a Storm: The teen survival cookbook – Sam Stern & Susan Stern

Teenagers love independence and at some point that is going to mean cooking for themselves, so you may as well get them started sooner rather than later. This book dates back to 2014, but is a good one, with real food, and not just the sugary bakes that are often marketed at this age group, and particularly females. Boys need to know how to cook too!

xmas 18 9

 

Would You Rather Randoms: A collection of hilarious hypothetical questions – Clint Hammerstrike

My kids’ favourite dinner table conversation seems to revolve around such questions as would you rather eat the same thing for the rest of your life or never eat the same thing twice???? Hmm. They love it though. This little book could spark some similarly edifying conversation in your household.

 

I hope there is something here that is useful to you. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.

Look out for my fiction recommendations later in the week.

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Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

Keep your kids reading this summer

Libraries up and down the UK have launched their summer reading challenge for kids this week as schools break up for the holidays. My local library service (Trafford in Greater Manchester) has launched its challenge under the title Mischief Makers – hmm, a thinly disguised attempt to appeal the more reluctant reader, methinks! The little pack they get looks great so get your kids along to the library.

Libraries always work hard to provide great recommendations for kids so they will have a display of the latest and most appealing titles. Some brilliant kids’ books I have read and reviewed this year have been Kick by Mitch Johnson, A Whisper of Horses by Zillah Bethel, Tin by Padraig Kenny and 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You by Vicki Grant.

In addition, there are some great new books around that have caught my eye. Age ratings can be tricky as children reach reading abilities and levels of maturity at different stages, so I’ve defined by key stage. Here are my picks.

For KS1-KS2 (age7-10ish)

The Wild Folk by Sylvia V Linsteadt is a quest story with an eco theme about two young people trying to stop the city taking over the country by completing a series of challenges set by a pair of hares. Migration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond – non-fiction is good, pictures are good, this is a beautiful book. The Creakers by Tom Fletcher – bumps in the night, all the adults gone from the town! Lucy is on a mission to discover the truth.

For KS2, going on KS3 (8-12 ish)

Anthony Horowitz, Derek Landy and Tom Gates, all popular and much-loved, each have new books out this summer. For something a little different try Riddle of the Runes by Janina Ramirez, set in the Viking town of Kilsgard. Alva, our young heroine solves mysteries with the help of her pet wolf Fenrir. This is the first book in a new series which I am sure will go down a storm.

For tweens and teens (11-14)

Push the envelope with some poetry – Everything All At Once by Steve Camden is a series of poems about one week in secondary school and all its trials, tribulations and pleasures. Theatrical by Maggie Harcourt follows the fortunes of Hope, who wants to work backstage in the theatre but whose Mum is a famous costume designer, which is a problem. Oh, and she falls in love with a young actor. Perfect summer reading! Suffragette: The Battle for Equality is an illustrated history of the movement with some stunning artwork. Perfect non-fiction for young people interested in political issues.

I hope that has whetted your appetite – it certainly has mine! Get your kids along to the library or local bookshop and there’ll be loads more to choose from.

What are your suggestions for kids reading material this summer?

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Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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Kids book review: “Red Nemesis (Young Bond)” by Steve Cole

When I was a kid, I watched all the James Bond movies, several times over, because my Dad loved them. So, I know the storylines well and have views about who is my favourite ‘Bond’ (Sean Connery, of course!). In recent years, the Bond movies have got darker, more erotic (rather than just sexy with a smile) and have greater psychological depth, more adult in other words. But there is something about the Bond marque which remains innocent, boyish and which has an appeal across the age groups, despite the inevitable multiple death toll! And it’s not just the baddies who die, which is awkward for younger viewers. However, I watched them all as a child and I think I’m okay.

Red Nemesis imgTo my shame I have never read any of the Fleming novels (my husband has and he likes them a lot), so I was delighted to pick up this book from the children’s section of my local library and if you have pre/young teens in your household, I think they might like it. Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, is the ninth novel in the ‘Young Bond’ series by Penguin Random House (under their imprint Red Fox). Five have been written by Charlie Higson (author of ‘The Enemy Novels’ – The Enemy, The Dead, The Fear, etc) and four so far by Steve Cole (famous for his Astrosaurs books). They are all closely linked to and published under the aegis of the Ian Fleming novels. In these books, we meet James Bond as a schoolboy. He already has connections with the British Secret Services, thanks to his father’s career in defence sales, and becomes involved in improbable missions and adventures. All part of the escapism! In Young Bond we get to see the life events that shape the man we know so well. (In my case through Sean, Roger, Pierce, Daniel, et al).

Red Nemesis is set in the summer of 1935 during James’s summer break from Fettes College, a smart public school in Scotland. He is about to go home with his Aunt Charmian; his parents are dead, having been killed in a skiing ‘accident’ when he was younger. The story opens a couple of years earlier in London with a mysterious Russian, Ivan Kalashnikov, deliberately breaking the legs of his daughter, Anya, in a car crash that was meant to look like an accident. Anya is a promising ballerina set for a glittering career on the international stage. Why would a father do this?

On the train back from Scotland, Charmian hands James a backpack which belonged to his father and which has been retrieved from the ice where he died. The contents are mysterious and include items which James senses are clues to an unsolved mystery in which his father may have been involved, in particular a cryptic postcard penned to his brother Max, James’s uncle and Charmian’s late husband. James also feels the contents of the backpack may bring him closer to the truth about his parents’ untimely deaths.

Following the clues, James goes to London. He first visits the Secret Intelligence Service to hand over copies of the documents in his father’s backpack to a former acquaintance of Max’s, the SIS agent Adam Elmhirst. He then goes to the Mechta Academy of Performing Arts, an international school near the SIS building. He masquerades as a prospective pupil, the son of a diplomat, pretending he has made an appointment to look around. He is given short shrift by the cold foreign authorities at the school but manages to break free of security. He conducts his own tour of the basement and finds a large stock of a powerful explosive. He is discovered and gets into a fight with a young man who is apparently a pupil. James wakes up in a cell, locked up for trespassing on the premises of the school without permission, until he is rescued by the aforementioned Elmhirst, who immediately invites James to accompany him to Moscow to help solve the mystery of the contents of the backpack, which Elmhirst says will lead them to uncover some malign Russian plot.

Most of the rest of the book is set in Moscow, as James and Elmhirst get into numerous scrapes. There are dramatic chases, villains, fights, plus of course, a bit of young love interest when James tracks down Anya Kalashnikov (he was clearly already powerfully attractive from quite a young age). Anya becomes James’s sidekick after her father is brutally killed; she realises she is not safe and has nothing to lose by getting involved with the mystery-solving activity.

There is violence, peril, quite a few deaths, unlikely villains, stereotypes and spies, but all of it in true James Bond fashion. It’s not as tongue-in-cheek as some of the earlier Bond films; there is an element of the troubled soul, the three-dimensional human we have come to see in the Daniel Craig incarnation of Bond (though not that dark), which is probably truer to the Fleming novels.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it has nail-biting action, problem-solving, and James feels like a well-developed character with fears, feelings and flaws as well as bravery, resilience and strong fighting instincts. There is quite a bit of violence and death, so I would recommend for 12-14 year olds. Alongside James, Anya provides a strong female character so I think both girls and boys would enjoy this. I did!

What do your kids think of the ‘Young Bond’ novels?

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What’s new in kids’ books for Spring

Last week, I posted about some of the books being published for Spring that look like good reads. This week I’ve been scouring the children’s section and here are some titles that have caught my eye.

sky song

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Recommended for 8+.

Frozen lands, snow, and the animals associated with it, have long been fascinating subjects for children’s books, whether it’s CS Lewis’s Narnia, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, or indeed Santa Claus, and there are a clutch of such books around at the moment. This book is set in the frozen kingdom of Erkenwald which is tyranically ruled by the Ice Queen. It is an adventure story where a girl, Eska, breaks free from a music box where she has been held prisoner, and her friend Flint, a young boy. Together they have the potential to break the power of the Ice Queen.

 

tinTin by Padraig Kenny

Recommended for 9+.

The cover makes me think this could be a modern day Wizard of Oz. It’s a debut novel from an Irish author and the central character is Christopher, an orphan who works for an engineer who manufactures ‘mechanicals’, a kind of robot. These become Christopher’s best friends and with them he sets out on a journey, following a devastating accident, and discovers things about himself and about what it means to be human.

 

the light jarThe Light Jar by Lisa Thompson

Recommended for 9-12.

Lisa Thompson’s first book, The Goldfish Boy, about a boy suffering from debilitating OCD, was hugely popular and has been shortlisted for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2018. This follow-up deals with similarly contemporary issues. Nate and his mother leave their home in the middle of the night. Nate’s mother does not explain why, but Nate thinks it has to do with her boyfriend Gary. When Nate’s Mum goes out for groceries and does not return Nate finds himself alone. He receives a visit from an old friend and between them they go on an adventure which may or may not help Nate resolve his troubles and be reunited with his Mum.

 

the-unpredictability-of-being-humanThe Unpredictability of Being Human by Linni Ingemundsen

Recommended for Young Adult readers

In this debut novel from a young Norwegian author, the central character is 15 year-old Malin who is struggling to cope with her dysfunctional family. Her father seems always angry, her mother has a drink problem and her older brother is remote, XBox-obsessed and gets into trouble. She also struggles with friendships at school until she finally meets Hanna, a girl with problems of her own, and together they navigate the challenges of growing up. A novel about fitting-in and finding your own way, against the odds, that will resonate with young female teens.

 

the final sixThe Final Six by Alexandra Monir

Recommended for 13+

It can be hard to find reading material that appeals to teenage boys, but this one might do the trick. Due out in early March it is action-packed science fiction, and has already been bought by Sony pictures for a film adaptation. Leo and Naomi are selected from among the world’s brightest teenagers for a mission to Europa, Jupiter’s moon, in order to establish a human colony, so grave has the threat to Earth become. As they undergo the rigorous training programme, Leo and Naomi begin to question the true motive of the mission, and become suspicious of their masters’ intentions.

 

things a bright girl can doThings A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Recommended for Young Adult readers.

An appropriate one for the month in which we celebrate the extension of voting rights to some women in the UK. This novel brings together three girls, Evelyn, May and Nell, each from very different backgrounds but who find common cause in the women’s suffrage movement. Evelyn enjoys a privileged lifestyle but resents the fact that the only expectation of her in life is to marry according to her family’s wishes, while her brother gets to go to university. May and Nell, from very different backgrounds, meet and fall in love, strictly forbidden at that time, and face their own challenges but are equally moved by the cause for women’s equality. This novel follows their separate stories whilst exploring the issues of the suffrage movement in the context of the era.

I hope there is something here that might pique the interest of some young people you know. Take them along to the bookshop or library to find out. And if they do read any of them, I’d love to hear what they think.

What books for kids have you seen that appeal to you?

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How to get their noses in a book this half term

When my children were young, I found it relatively easy to entertain them during school holidays; they still liked going to parks (sighs wistfully!), did not roll their eyes when I suggested a museum or gallery (usually running a school holiday activity), even a bus or train ride was a novelty! And if I needed to work or just needed a break, there were always organised activities, sports clubs, etc. Now, two of my children are teenagers, and the third is there in spirit if not in chronological years. They can entertain themselves, often making their own arrangements with friends, requiring only transport assistance from me, and this is great; they are independent and there is a lower impact on my writing life.

girl-672267_1920However, with autonomy comes power – if they are having an ‘at home’ day they can simply slip under the radar and spend a great deal of quality time with their phones and tablets (oh for the days when I only worried about how much Balamory they watched!) They can secrete themselves in their bedrooms while I lose myself in all my usual activity. At their age, sure I watched a lot of telly while my parents were out at work in the school holidays, but I also spent plenty of time with my nose in a book. Digital distractions were fewer and less powerful.

I’m not looking back with rose-tinted specs thinking ‘if only their lives could be like mine…’ no way; I know I would have loved the internet! However, now I’m a 21st century parent I can see how easily it is for the reading, no, the whole cultural habit to slip away and get lost in the mire of competing forms of entertainment. So, what can be done? Well, if the scenario outlined above sounds familiar and, like me, you would like your young people to engage more with paper and page-turning rather than screens and swiping, here are some thoughts for you:

  1. Don’t panic and don’t give up – even the most avid readers have dry periods and the teenage years are unique and short-lived. They have many things to contend with and reading may not be top of their list. Hang on in there and see below.
  2. Let them see you reading – I work mostly from home and my kids are fascinated by what I do all day! When they are off school I make sure they see me switching off the phone and the computer and reading; don’t save your reading until bedtime. Ten minutes reading in front of your kids is far more powerful than all your verbal exhortations to read – they listen to nothing you say but they watch everything you do. Model the desired behaviours.
  3. Bring books into their life – yesterday I went out with one of mine and treated them to a hot chocolate…in the bookshop cafe! And afterwards we had a browse. Later in the week I may find I need to call into the library while we are out.
  4. Seek out literary-themed days out – you may have at least one planned day out while your kids are off. Did a favourite author live nearby, whose home you could visit? Is there some literary link to a local beauty spot? I live in Manchester in north-west England and we are very fortunate to have a rich local literary heritage – Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, four fascinating libraries (Central library, John Ryland’s, Chetham’s and the Portico), and the Lake District is nearby (Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome).
  5. In fact, any culture will do – museums, galleries? Many are still free so there is no pressure to spend all day there, just hang out for an hour or so. Engagement with any kind of cultural activity will demonstrate to your teens that life exists beyond the screen and even if they start bored, they will probably have to read something, even if its only the descriptions of the exhibits.
  6. Watch a movie adaptation together – the key word here is ‘together’. If it’s their choice, maybe an adaptation of a YA novel, so much the better. If they like the film, but haven’t read the book, suggest getting it for them.
  7. Revisit a once-loved childhood classic together – were there books they loved reading as children? Perhaps dig out an old favourite, they’ll enjoy the nostalgia. My eldest still goes back to Harry Potter from time to time.
  8. Buy newspapers and magazines – all reading is good.
  9. Finally, leave all kinds of reading material lying around, in every room, even the kitchen and bathroom. When they’re off school and they’ve more time on their hands they may be inclined to linger.

The key thing is to show an interest and not to judge. I consider myself an avid reader these days and I did read a lot of classics when I was young, but I read some ‘trash’ too, and I loved comics and teen magazines. Value their choices, even if you secretly wish they’d read something different, and talk to them about what they’re reading.

What do you do to try and get your kids reading, particularly the older ones? 

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